Book Review: Boneshaker By Cherie Priest

Steampunk! I’ve dabbled from time to time. I like the art but so far have not really found my definitive and favourite steampunk novel. I’ve read the classics such as The Difference Engine and The Anubis Gates. I bought this one in 2013 as it had got some good reviews.

I like the daftness of steampunk. I love the art. I love the very idea of steam technology fuelling our future or anachronistic technology in Victorian England or USA. There is something pure and wondrous about the age of invention. For me, these things are all the draw of steampunk. At the end of the 19th century, the Russian Empire sends an enormous drill through the Alaskan ice fields to mine for gold (the drill is the titular Boneshaker). It goes horribly wrong and they leave devastation in their wake, releasing upon Seattle a massive area of deadly gas called Blight. A wall is built around the city to contain it.

Some years later, the main character (Briar Wilkes) must go beyond the enormous wall surrounding Seattle to rescue her 15 year old son. On the journey, she will face addicts of a distilled version of Blight, travel on airships, meet mad scientists and mix the powers vying for supremacy to find the petulant child. Oh and it has zombies. Steampunk, zombies, mad scientists and adventure. What could go wrong? Not much, it seems as Boneshaker was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula in the year of its release and won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association for best book and Locus Award for best sci-fi novel.

Agreed, there is not much, really that could go wrong with this book. I tend to like my steampunk on the “fun adventure” side and Cherie Priest delivers just that. Sometimes as readers we just want escapism. Priest delivers just that too. Having recently read the reviews, it seems that this book generally divides audiences. On the down side, the book does take a little while to get going. It seems something like 1/3 of its 420(ish) page run is over before anything starts to happen. The protagonist seems quite passive at times and we struggle to really connect with her desire to find her son. There is little passion to her and little sense that she gives a damn about his fate, that is until she meets people who may have seen him. The story doesn’t quite feel as fleshed out in places as it could have been.

Nevertheless, on the up side Priest delivers a ripping yarn that rarely takes itself too seriously. The flaws are forgiveable because it delivers quite a lot of fun. In some ways, it feels like a good old-fashioned boys adventure story from the early 1900s except it was written by a woman in her early 30s at the time of publishing (2009). And it has zombies, airships and disease. Not the sort of thing you will find in Enid Blyton 😀

I can strongly recommend this book to steampunk virgins. It has the right balance between concept and story, and between daftness and adventure. It’s more accessible than the books I mention at the start of this review. At present, it is the first book in a series of 5. I certainly expect to read more.

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